Is Sugar vegetarian?

July 6, 2008


By now it is common knowledge that for the production of sugar some animal bone is used for the filtration or discoloration of sugar. However the use of sugar is so widely prevalent that many have been given to understand that there is no additive in the form of animal product and also some how given the impression that the final product sugar does not directly come in contact with the animal matter and hence no cause for concern. We were asked to carry out tests to check if sugar contains any animal residue in it . When checking the testing procedures we were shocked to find that no such fool proof tests exists and the normal testing procedure which does test for calcium cannot distinguish between calcium in bone and calcium of cane. Hence a detailed study of the process was decided to be studied and we present the brief of our study.

Brief Report

During the study it has been seen that almost all the sugar mills are using Bone Meal, that is bone carbon of animals mostly Cow for the cane sugar process to make the sugar white. It is so widely prevalent that we were shocked to find out that huge quantities of Cow bone is being imported from Pakistan mostly and some quantity from Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It surprising that the though vegetable carbon can be used for this purpose, all mills almost uniformly use animal bones/cow bones for the purpose as this is cheaper. There may be a few sugar mills which may not be using bone carbon, but it is very rare and we are yet to trace such a mill. We are still continuing this study to find any kind of tests and further study the mills process and recommend better process. At the moment our concentration is on finding mills that do not use bone carbon for their process.


1.The question given to us was does sugar contain animal product and to test for the same in any standard laboratory.
2.We contacted M/s.Anatech of Bangalore which earlier conducted a very intensified study and testing in establishing the contamination of so called pure ghee in the market with several adulterants, varying from vegetable oil, hydrogenated fat , chicken and cow fat, in several leading and established brands. The results were shocking to say the least and we conducted further tests and study and the results repeated . We also studied several other products incidentally and concluded that in a country where adulteration is a fine science, and Government agencies look the other way and do not even implement adulteration act passed by the Supreme court over two years back almost anything is possible . For example it is not uncommon to mix over 30% red mud in chilly powder and a further 10 to 15% rice husk powder and banned dye to camouflage the same. In at least a couple mills this was being done so openly even when the government food inspector visited. Of course no action was taken.
3.With reference to sugar we just assumed that such a test existed and tried to test the sugar for the same. To our surprise no such tests existed. One way of testing was to spectrogram of a known sugar which does not use animal product in any way and compare the other sugar spectrogram with this . But we could not get any sugar in the market so far which can be conclusively said not to use animal bone.
4.In the absence of such procedures it was decided to study the mills process of sugar making to get some idea of the animal
bone being used.

The Study

We are enclosing herewith the detailed report by M/sAnatech which gives some results of sugar tests and the brief process of sugar making.
1.The problem we knew from the beginning is that of definition. This animal bone is not added to the sugar and hence qualifies for a definition of being vegetarian. But the sugar syrup is passed through the bone carbon for removing the dark coloration of the cane sugar. The debate commonly has been does the residue animal bone get into the sugar crystals and the answer from the sugar mills is no. But several independent opinion is that some overlay would get onto the sugar crystals though they may not get into the sugar itself.
2.It is strange that in a country that worships cow, we have got into the debate of whether cow bone residue gets left over in the sugar , rather than why cow bone would be used at all Or for that matter why animal bone or products need to be used at all. (, specially when an alternative is so easily available , albeit at a higher cost.)
3.The dark coloration is unique to cane sugar and this dark color can be removed by passing through active carbon filter. The active carbon filter can be vegetable carbon like some wood and coconut shell and also bone carbon(specifically cow as this is cheaper and available in larger quantity. )
4.Incidentally in places like USA the sugar is made from Beet and beet sugar process does not need the discoloration process and there fore animal or any other carbon is not used for discoloration. This is also one of the reason that such testing procedure has not evolved as this is not needed in USA or Europe.
4.About 20 years ago we had been to Sri Lanka for some projects and we got involved with the Coconut promotion council in promoting the use of coconut products. One of the products under discussion was active carbon derived from coconut shell. Sri Lanka had huge quantities of coconut shell and they were making active carbon from them for use in several industries including sugar mills. Even at that time they had reported poor response from the sugar mills in India as they were reluctant to substitute the bone product in use due to the cost factor.
Incidentally Sri Lankan Coconut carbon is very high in active carbon content and is considered best in the world for quality and also
processing and promoting this product.
5.We further decided to engage some persons in literature survey to get details of the sugar process.

The Process in the Mills

1.The study conducted gave us very shocking results.
2.Animal Bone mostly cow bone is used in the discoloration process in almost all the mills. This is basically due to the cost factor. Now with the sugar price control by the government the sugar mills are running under loss and there is very little chance of any mill trying to use vegetable carbon. We estimate that the price of sugar would go up by Rs.2.00 per Kg if vegetable carbon is used instead of animal carbon.
3.There may be exception to this . It is understood that some years back a Birla group M/s.Rajashree Sugar in Madhya Pradesh was manufacturing sugar without the use of Animal bone char, to ensure pure vegetarian sugar. They need to be contacted to check if the same process is being followed up even now.
4.The other exception is that very small sugar plants cannot have the economies of scale of using bone char and these also use vegetable char. We are unable to collect data on this so far and still pursuing the same.
5.Cow bones are imported from Pakistan mostly and other neighboring countries as they are cheaper . The bones are normally cleaned of all extra flesh and blood before converting into active carbon for use in the industry. However the cleaning is not conducted properly and there is left over of bone marrow which may get into the product as overlay. As the crystallization process does not allow the animal matter to get into and inside the product. However the chances of animal residue getting into the process is very strong , though it may get removed as residue later on during the crystallisation process. There is no doubt of the contact of the sugar with the animal product.
6.M/s.Anatech was completely shocked at the revelation of the study. He said he was surprised to know that such large quantity of bones were being imported from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. . With economy being the main motive cleanliness is the last thought in their mind. It is just plain rotten stuff being imported as the bones are not completely cleaned and dried prior to import or during the conversion to carbon.
7.M/s.Anatech states that the use of animal bone in the sugar process as filter is dangerous in the long run as any virus that may be in the bones would not be killed by the sugar process and would have every chance of getting into the sugar products. This is a danger of all animal products. He says that the use of such old bones, rotting and badly handled would have great chance of any deadly virus or its strain entering the final product. He says this is a silent ticking bomb,waiting to explode at any time.
( Incidentally we knew of two of our business acquaintances who use to deal in Bones of Cow. One was Mr.Mushtaque of Bangalore who use to boil cow bones to extract fat for supply to manufactures to make soap used in industries. The other was an NRI from Singapore who started M/s. Vijay bone meals at Chennai , to supply bones to various industries including sugar mills. We know from their rendition of their industry process, that hygiene and completion of the process, was the last thing in their mind. They used to tell us that the bones are so difficult to clean that most of the times the bones are not well cleaned for the next process and bone marrow, sinews etc would get left behind.

Test Procedure

We are still looking for any test procedure to conclusively test for any animal residue. This is difficult but we are pursuing and contacting other research and labs round the world through M/s.Anatech.
What is the alternative:
1.Use jaggery instead.
2.We understand that small mills may not use bone sugar. We need to identify such mills and under certification use such sugar. 3.During our childhood for festivals for making bhoga a sugar by name ‘Bhoosa-sugar ‘ used to be available. This was direct cyrstalised sugar from the village jaggery making process.We are unable to trace such product now in the market. With the supply chain changing the direct contact of some jaggery makers with the small trader has been lost.
4.We know that in some countries abroad due to health reasons they use sugar which has not passed through the filtration process and is brown ununiform crystals called brown sugar. However such similar sugars available in India are actually caramel that is white sugar burnt partially for use in cakes and cookies .
We should be careful of such so called vegetarian sugars in the market.
5.We should contact such mills run by the Birla group and find out if they have a animal bone free process.
6.Beet sugar invariable does not use animal bone and can be totally vegetarian.
7.We should try to enforce the government to label all sugar as either “animal-bone-used” or “animal- bone- not-used” in the interest of the public.

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